COLUMBUS – Former state Sen. Josh McKoon won a three-way race on Saturday to lead the state GOP with a promise to unify Republicans after the divisive tenure of his predecessor David Shafer, who presided over a wave of GOP losses during his four-year stint as party chair.
McKoon forged a coalition that included hardline conservatives and more mainstream party figures, delivering a fiery attack on “outrageous and wrong” Democrats with a pledge to be a sharp-elbowed champion of conservative causes.
He faces immediate challenges trying to restore relevancy to a party that’s been sidelined by state Republican leaders who tired of what they see as Shafer’s ineffective leadership and a takeover by Donald Trump’s loyalists.
McKoon defeated Rebecca Yardley, the chair of the 9th GOP District, who centered her campaign on an ambitious 100-day plan to boost fundraising, reshape the party’s public image and forge new ways for volunteers. A third contender, Dennis Futch, was also in the running.
All three hopefuls promised to turn the page from Shafer, the embattled former party leader who could face criminal charges for his part in orchestrating a pro-Trump fake elector slate. Shafer said he’s done nothing wrong.
More pressing to many GOP members, Shafer openly sided with Trump-backed candidates in last year’s midterm over Gov. Brian Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and other incumbents. That break from tradition infuriated many activists.
Each contender staked different visions of rebuilding a state party that’s battling irrelevancy. Mainstream Republicans have fled the state GOP as some members move toward the far-right fringes. And Kemp has started his own parallel organization that aims to fill the party’s void.
The division comes amid a string of GOP setbacks in a once-solidly Republican state. In 2020, Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential contender to lose Georgia in nearly three decades, and Democrats swept the U.S. Senate runoffs in 2021 to win control of the chamber.
During last year’s midterms, Kemp and many other statewide Republicans who aren’t aligned with the state GOP won sweeping victories while Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, a close ally of Shafer, collapsed in a runoff against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
Meanwhile, there’s a growing tug-of-war within the party between those focused on Trump’s election fraud lies and others who want Republicans to embrace forward-looking stances on economy and public safety that could dominate the 2024 election.
McKoon called himself a “relentlessly positive” unifying force who could refocus the party on those kitchen-table issues while also engaging with the pro-Trump conservatives who have gained tremendous clout in the party.
While the party has been marginalized in recent years, its delegates still play a formidable role as foot soldiers for GOP causes and candidates every election season. And the party sends delegates to Republican nomination conventions that determine the GOP presidential nominee.
After McKoon’s victory, he and his two rivals posed for a photo to demonstrate unity, as both Yardley and Futch promised to work with him to expand the GOP base.
Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC
Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC
‘Watch what happens’
As a state senator from Columbus, McKoon was perhaps best known at the Capitol for two reasons.
He was a champion of the controversial “religious liberty” legislation beloved by many grassroots conservatives and hated by establishment-minded officials.
And he was a proponent of more stringent ethics legislation that aimed to bring more transparency to how politicking works under the Gold Dome.
He paid a price for his outspoken stances. A majority of his Republican colleagues in the Senate banded together in 2016 to oust him from his chairmanship of a key committee.
But a year later, many of the same Republicans endorsed his quest to oversee state elections. He wound up finishing in third place, about 70,000 votes shy of Raffensperger, the eventual victor.
A close ally of Shafer, McKoon nonetheless advocates a pointedly different approach that shifts the focus from Trump’s 2020 defeat.
“It’s all about bringing everyone to the table, and I’m able to do that,” McKoon said in an interview. “I have excellent credentials with state leaders and grassroots activists, and I’m best positioned to bridge the gap and focus on 2024.”
His platform includes a new program for “intense grassroots training” for field operatives, more aggressive outreach to activists and voters, and a revamped fundraising team.
After watching Democrats capitalize on mail-in voting, McKoon also wants to break from a GOP tradition of focusing much of the party’s resources on Election Day turnout instead of emphasizing absentee ballots.
“We’ve got to recognize there are people who want to vote by absentee ballot and don’t have much confidence in our electronic voting machines — and we have to reach them,” he said. “We need to focus on getting them to make a plan to vote.”
Under his watch, he said, the Georgia GOP will also be more welcoming to moderate and independent members.
“Watch what happens over the next 24 months, because what people will see is a Georgia GOP focused on kitchen-table issues,” he said. “They’ll see Republicans focused on prosecuting the case against Democrats rather than shooting at other Republicans.”